Supervisors have won some advocates for the Aldie Tavern over with their new proposal to trade it and more than $2 million to a controversial developer in exchange for land near the village of St. Louis.
In exchange for the 16-acre St. Louis property, which developer Mojax LLC had planned a 30-home subdivision, supervisors propose handing over the Aldie Tavern property, $1.5 million, and $600,000 in escrow for matching funds to work on the tavern building and install an access road to a planned private park behind it, also owned by the developer behind Mojax, Jack Andrews.
That deal is meant to forestall the development near St. Louis and provide a path to restoring the Aldie Tavern and surrounding buildings.
The county and Mojax would also have to begin a rezoning process to the Rural Commercial district, apply to include all of the Aldie Tavern land in the Aldie Historic and Cultural Conservation District, and record restrictive covenants recorded against the property to ensure development consistent with a proposed Aldie Park Concept Plan.
The plan includes a restored tavern, shops in the two other buildings on the property, a brewery, and a bed-and-breakfast. It would also serve as the entrance and park office for the private parkland.
Some Aldie residents were on board with the proposal, like Roy Minster.
“Change is coming. And it’s coming west of [Rt.] 15,” Minster said. “The future is really, really uncertain. This project gives immediately to Aldie a reason for being, and quality of life that we surely deserve. It would be so grand to hear, ‘hey, let’s go to the park in Aldie.”
Patrick Green, an art teacher at Independence High School, said the proposal to include a space for artists to work and exhibit would be good for his students.
“Loudoun County has a rich tradition of artisans and craftspeople, and giving them a location to showcase their talents would be an amazing opportunity for everyone involved,” Green said. “In the past, I have taken students to Torpedo Factory in Alexandria on field trips, giving them the priceless experience to see artists at work and the process of art being created.”
But others were concerned by the proposal—not just for its impact on Aldie, but by the developer on the other side of the deal.
Mojax’s work on the land near St. Louis still under review by the state and local agencies for violating environmental regulations by impacting wetlands, with a consent order from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality under consideration that could have the developer pay a $32,275 civil penalty, restore wetlands and purchase 0.6 acres of wetlands credits.
“The developers have a long and storied history of violating county, state, and federal law and regulations and have never shown any regard for community input,” said Eleanor Morrison.
And Andrews is already in a long-running legal battle with the organization that holds the conservation easement on the property behind the tavern. Sally Price, Executive Director of the Land Trust of Virginia, said since 2013 they have been in a legal battle with Andrews over violating the terms of that easement. And, she said, nobody has talked to the Land Trust yet about plans for a park.
“Any plans for a park on the 60 acres would be required to be reviewed and approved by the Land Trust of Virginia, because the property is in a permanent conservation easement,” Price said. “No one has approached us with plans for a park or for any new roads into the property. So as the park is part of your consideration of this plan, we would strongly encourage you to formalize that arrangement, and make sure that any planed disturbance on the land in the easement with us receives our approval—approval because it is in compliance with the conservation easement on that property.”
Malcolm Collum was one of several people who alluded to a cash offer by another party for the property.
“I do know the person who has put forward a cash offer to buy these properties,” Collum said. “He owns historic property in the village, and he is committed to restoring the existing structures according to Aldie historic district guidelines. In fact, he has an award from the American Institute of Architects for historic renovation. This is exactly what all of the residents want. He does not have a laundry list of zoning and code violations, a reputation for ignoring stop work orders, or corresponding lawsuits.”
Middleburg Mayor Bridge Littleton compared the Aldie Tavern to his town’s ongoing work to preserve the historic Asbury Church. In that case, the town issued a request for proposals seeking responses from someone interested in buying the building and preserving it while using it. Littleton said the town has now received four proposals which the council will review at its next meeting.
“Until we as the town government took the active responsibility to lead this effort, no takers ever came, which is the case for Aldie,” Littleton said. “It is very important to understand that our goal was not any use, or getting it off our books, but was a plan in line with the vision of the community.”
“Please, separate these activities,” said Douglas Smith. “If this is going to be a big development, let it be a purchase of the property. Let it go through all the processes and everything. But right now it appears—sorry to say—like a back room deal. But I know it isn’t, but it appears that way because we are just citizens, we don’t have all the insight.”
Chair Phyllis J. Randall (D-At Large) disputed the idea that the deal—which was first revealed in a surprise vote by supervisors after midnight—was a “backroom deal.”
“I always get quite frankly offended when people accuse this board of doing back room deals,” Randall said. “Most people on this board actually work. This is their second job, and they work very hard, and no one in this board has ever been involved with back room deals, and that’s just offensive and I don’t let that pass.”
The room where supervisors typically meet in closed session is to one side of the boardroom, not behind it. Supervisors, who are proposing to hand over the Aldie Tavern and more than $2 million for the 16.4 acres near St. Louis, and who Randall estimated have so far spent more than $5.5 million on finding a location for a new Aldie fire station, as a rule choose to hold real estate discussions behind closed doors, arguing conducting those negotiations in public would put them at a disadvantage.
Randall also dismissed out of hand a petition that in five days gathered close to 1,000 signatures opposed to the project.
“The last time this happened the petition was an online petition. People were signing that thing from all over the country, literally,” Randall said. “[…] an online petition just doesn’t carry that much weight to me. So you’re coming up and telling me that you have 20,000 signatures on a petition for the Village of Aldie, I’m just not really hearing that.”
However, she acknowledged that the process had been “rushed,” and moved to send the discussion to a committee for more discussion. Supervisors voted 8-0-1, with Supervisor Tony R. Buffington (R-Blue Ridge) absent as the U.S. Capitol Police prepare for the Jan. 20 presidential inauguration, to send the discussion to the county finance committee.
“When I look at this, I see a potential way to ensure the viability of the historic village of Aldie, and treat it as the gateway that it is to points west with a project that is attractive, that does provide an amenity,” said finance committee chairman Supervisor Matthew F. Letourneau (R-Dulles). “There’s a lot of by-right uses on this piece of land that could be used at any point in time, and one of these discussions is ensuring that none of those things occur.”